Living contradictions


Image by Nicolas Nova: flickr

The contradictions of Sutra

Practices that derive from Sutra center on liberation from Samsara, the cycle of habitual grasping to attraction, aversion and indifference that causes suffering.

The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the cessation of Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth, causing ‘dukkha,’ in Pali, dissatisfaction, often translated as suffering) are core Sutric teachings. Our patterned habits of attraction, aversion and indifference cause us misery. Our attachment to ego makes us self-serving. We are habitual ego-reinforcers, but we can develop detachment and equanimity through concentrated meditation which will enable us to further let go of striving and grasping. Then we will see that our desires and habits cause us unhappiness at a deep level. We can begin to erase even the most subtle traces of conditioning, perhaps even achieving states of cessation, eventually becoming an arhat or experiencing nirvana.

Different presentations may use the language of mindfulness, jhanas, stream entry, no-self, detachment, loving-kindness, compassion, emptiness. Sutra-derived worldviews have in common the theme that if we follow a correct path we can develop virtues in a self-reinforcing cycle of purity or wholesomeness. We will find it incrementally easier to detach ourselves from impurity, misdemeanour and ill-intent. We can develop a release from our grasping self to the point that we no longer experience desire. We might even achieve a state of nirodha and have all sensation cease. In Sutric systems, these experiences are highly desirable. States of intense desire, negative emotions, bad thoughts, are undesirable.

A system that advocates separation from one side of a polarity to achieve its opposite is dualist. Examples of such polarities are ‘good vs bad’, ‘pure vs. impure’, ‘right vs. wrong’. Dualism fixes the meaning of polarities and our selves in relation to them. Sutra is dualist in practice. Some versions simultaneously extol nondualism.

Continue reading “Living contradictions”

Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering

Dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma
wikimedia commons

Sutra dominates

When most people say ‘Buddhism’, what they are referring to is Sutrayana, the path of Sutra.1 I use ‘Sutra’, for short. Sutra is the dominant form of Buddhism available today. It is so dominant that it might be fair to say it has a monopoly on Buddhism. The majority of Buddhist practitioners do not know about alternatives.

Sutra centers on the idea that complete liberation from suffering is possible. By doing the right things, being the right way, eventually, we can extricate ourselves from a cycle of perpetually self-inducing misery. Many secular presentations of meditation have adopted this underlying framework. The language is the same, barring removal of the most prominent forms of magical thinking.

Is this realistic? The only way to eliminate suffering is to cease sensation. This is the purpose of meditation practices intended to achieve no-self and liberation from Samsara. Is this what you want?

Continue reading “Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering”

The limited​ language of the no-self

Why do you meditate?

Why do you meditate?

Photo by Meenakshi Madhavan

Here I take a critical look at the language used to describe meditation, particularly Buddhist meditation.

We’re stuck in a limited pattern of meditation-speak, one that centers around ideas of the self. Much meditation and the discourse surrounding it is tied up in the revelatory discovery that we don’t have a self.  There’s such a strong emphasis on this that it risks occluding other purposes; it narrows the results of meditation practice to a restricted, prescribed understanding: that of ‘no-self’.

Continue reading “The limited​ language of the no-self”

Brain dumps vs. coherence


from XKCD

I spend most of my waking hours working. After work, I prioritise physical training and practice. Sometimes I have an idea for a blog post here and sketch out a rough draft, then don’t find the time to write it up into cogent, well-presented form. I have 21 such drafts now. I like to think carefully about the presentation of ideas, make sure that I’ve researched them well and that they’re clearly articulated.

A meticulous approach seems important because my view of Buddhism, and of Tantric practice, is somewhat non-conformist.  Expressing ideas that run contrary to contemporary mainstream assumptions – even when they draw on historical precedent – requires care and consideration.

Continue reading “Brain dumps vs. coherence”

Back from a long absence

A house in the mountains

At home in the mountains


I last wrote here six years ago. Recently I received several apparently unrelated requests to post here again, so I have been thinking about how and whether to do that.

In 2006 I left the security of permanent employment and home ownership. Since then I’ve been travelling, with only a case, a backpack and a laptop bag. In a back-of-envelope calculation, I realized I’ve stayed in well over 200 places over the last decade. I’ve always been lucky to have a roof over my head, though sometimes it’s been a near scrape.

My practices during that time, other than the Four Naljors silent sitting meditation (my daily ‘base’ practice), were martial and yogic practices of Dzogchen Long-dé in the tradition of Ling Gésar.  I made a couple of trips to Nepal, including spending some time in retreat there. I’m also a practitioner of chöd, yogic song, yidam and various other Buddhist Tantric methods. Continue reading “Back from a long absence”

More sky burial, Tibetan tea and Tantric transformation

This is a holding post: I’m mid retreats and travel, so have much less time to write. I had to neglect Vajrayana Now for the last couple of weeks. I went to the Aro Apprentice retreat in California and was then traveling.

It’s good to see some more comments since I was away. I hope to reply to them after posting this – but I may not get the chance before heading into my next retreat, in which case, thanks to those commenters for their contributions.

I finish retreat on 17th November, so I will not post, or see comments, until then. But  don’t let that stop you!

In the meantime, here are some links:

More sky burial

Preparing the body
Preparing the body

From ‘The Collective Intelligence’ online magazine:

My Vajra brother Ngakpa Zhal’mèd sent me this link. The article is about the sacred meaning of sky burial in its cultural context.

Darth Cthulu discloses his allegiances

Darth Cthulu is the Halloween profile my boyfriend David Chapman used for his Twitter account. He is posting a series, Reinventing Buddhist Tantra, on his wordpress blog.

The new season of this series starts with the post, Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast.

If you find charts and tables useful, you may enjoy his point by point comparison of Sutra and Tantra and the subsequent discussion in the comments thread.

There’s much more to come in this series, so look out for new posts over the next few weeks.

Voices from the wilderness

Repa Dorje Odzer, a Kagyüd and Nyingma practitioner blogging in New York, posted an exploratory article on the transmission of his lineages in America. The article is On voices from the wilderness: “Where we go from here…”

He writes with sensitivity and respect. Here’s an excerpt:

In this way, I tend to wonder if we may have made the fundamental error of leaning too much upon the 18th/19th century classicism of monastic Karma Kagyu as a model for the entirety of American Karma Kagyu (the vast majority of whom are lay) in the 21st century. It sounds kind of absurd actually when I see it written out like that, and I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to suggest that if this is the case, then perhaps we lose some of our credibility and accessibility with those who resonate with the sub-groups that feel at odds with the way the dharma is presented.  How are young people with little interest in India or Tibet, let alone their history, and who have little money to travel to India to feel connected?  What about some curious souls from the South Bronx, Brownsville, Oakland, Compton, or even large swathes of Suburbia who want to better understand their relationship to their experience of suffering to connect?

Dharma like Tibetan tea

And here’s a fun video of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche talking about Buddhism translating across cultural boundaries. This came via the full contact enlightenment blog:

He’s like, ‘what do Tibetans put in that stuff?’ but personally, I love it. I even tried making coffee in the style of Tibetan tea one time. Just the once.

Is Vajrayana hacking the West?

Come back when you finish preliminaries
“Come back when you finish preliminaries”

In my last post, I categorised justifications for the idea that Westerners are ill-suited to practice Vajrayana. Those justifications – that our values are incompatible, we can’t commit, our lifestyles do not provide conducive circumstances or that our karmic connection is lacking – are anecdotally common. Sometimes they are not stated outright but hidden in conciliatory language. My versions of these justifications are stripped down: I wanted to expose them in their most simple form, to make them easier to spot in articles and conversations.

In this post I highlight some generalisations underlying such justifications, then I examine the notion that Western culture is to blame.

Continue reading “Is Vajrayana hacking the West?”